Voters over 50 are leaning increasingly Republican, according to
recent polling. That's a big problem for Democrats.
By Doyle McManus
July 8, 2010
This is turning into a tough election year for Democrats, and most of
the reasons are familiar: The economy is stalled, President Obama's
popularity is sagging and voters are in an anti-incumbent mood.
There's an "enthusiasm gap" too. Republican voters are fired up and
ready to vote, while liberals are dispirited.
Now add one more factor: a new generation gap. Voters over the age of
50 are leaning increasingly Republican, according to recent polling
and that includes members of the giant baby boom generation between 50 and 64.
A Pew Research poll released last week found that most voters over 50
say they favor the Republicans in November's congressional election.
Voters in their 30's and 40's were evenly split; voters younger than
30 favored the Democrats. That's a big problem for Democrats, in two ways.
First, older voters are a bloc the party doesn't want to lose. They
turn out on Election Day more consistently than younger voters
especially in a nonpresi dential election, like this year's. About
two-thirds of November's voters will be 50 or older.
Second, the defections may reflect a deeper, longer-term trend: The
baby boom genera tion appears to be growing more conservative as it ages.
Democrats already knew they had trouble with voters over the age of
65. Those voters the true senior citizens were the only age group
that John McCain carried in the presidential election of 2008.
But the baby boomers the cohort from 50 to 64 had been in the
Democrats' grasp. Boomers voted for Obama in 2008. They voted
strongly for Democrats in the congressional election of 2006. (They
voted for George W. Bush in 2004, but only by a narrow margin unlike
the more conservative 65+ voters.)
Now, though, many of the boomers who voted for Obama are moving into
the Republican column and behaving (or at least answering survey
questions) just like the older cohort.
"There's evidence that those two generations, the early boomers and
the seniors, may be converging," said Andrew Kohut, Pew's director.
"If it holds up and we'll see in November that could be a
Those "early boomers," born between 1946 and 1960, reached adulthood
in the 1960s and '70s the era of the Vietnam War and the
counterculture. According to one prevailing theory of voter behavior,
their first political experiences should have stamped them for life.
They started out voting mostly for Democrats; they helped elect one
of their own, Bill Clinton, to two terms in the White House.
Why are they moving? One answer, political strategists from both
parties say, is that older voters are worried about the economy,
the federal deficit and the prospect of rising taxes. And as they
age, they're worried that Obama's healthcare law could harm Medicare,
even though the president has promised it won't.
Polls taken during the healthcare debate last year found that senior
citizens over 65 were more strongly opposed to the plan than any
other age group but over time, they were joined by middle-aged baby
boomers, who became increasingly negative.
"Older voters are worried that the quality of their healthcare could
decline," said David Winston, a Republican pollster. "That opens a
door where they're willing to listen to Republicans. It's a huge opportunity."
Republicans are seizing it by casting themselves as defenders of
Medicare, a Democratic initiative their party once opposed. They're
charging that $523 million in Medicare spending cuts under the new
law will hurt medical care for senior citizens.
Obama and his aides are fighting back, of course. They plan to spend
much of the summer promoting more popular aspects of the healthcare
law, including the $250 checks they began mailing in June to Medicare
patients who fall into the "doughnut hole" limit on drug benefits.
They've even enlisted allies outside the government to raise $125
million for a campaign to promote the healthcare reform package.
Polls show that the law's popularity is slowly inching upward but
not among most older voters yet.
And healthcare is merely this year's battle. If those millions of
baby boomers continue drifting rightward, Democrats will have a
problem that extends well beyond November's congressional election.
"There's a long-running debate," noted Democratic pollster Mark
Mellman. "Are political views a product of voters' generational
experience or of their place in the life cycle?
"To the extent that it's a product of their place in the life cycle,
[older voters] are beginning to look a lot like their parents," he
said. "They are becoming more conservative over time more
conservative on economic issues but more liberal than their parents
on social issues."
Which leaves Democrats with two options for responding to the
shifting generational wind. One is to trim their sails to chart a
more conservative course and respond to aging voters' fears about
healthcare and taxes and the deficit. (Some are trying to do that
now.) The other is to rely on the passage of time to wait for an
influx of younger people and minority voters to change the electorate
in their direction. That might work, but not by this November.
Of course, the Republicans have problems too. But that's for another
column coming soon.